Marathon gaining traction

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon is growing in several directions, in its second year. From a storefront office on Market Avenue N in downtown Canton, Marathon Executive Director Jim Chaney is on a two-pronged attack.

Cheering sections and 5K to bring community support

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon is growing in several directions, in its second year. From a storefront office on Market Avenue N in downtown Canton, Marathon Executive Director Jim Chaney is on a two-pronged attack. Despite its home in the admittedly unexotic Rust Belt, he’s trying to turn the annual race into a “must-run” event for locals and visitors alike, while at the same time unveiling the brand-new Hall-themed Gold Jacket 5K series.

“We don’t have a beach … warmth, or anything some places out there can offer,” said Chaney. “What we have, though, is a concept, built around the Hall of Fame.”

One of last year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon runners receives her medal after finishing the race.
One of last year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon runners receives her medal after finishing the race.
To entice a broader group of runners, organizers added a team relay event, to go along with the full 26.2-mile marathon and half-marathon, to be held the weekend of April 24-26.

Putting together last year’s inaugural race was a challenge, on the heels of the failed Canton Marathon, an unrelated event. The two organizers of that event sued each other, and many communities and businesses had complained they were not paid for services in a timely manner.

“The first year, we gained some traction with runners,” Chaney said. “This year, the business community has come around. I think we’re gaining acceptance. The big thrust now is the community. We’re trying to get more community spectators by setting up cheer zones.”

Race officials will encourage those who live along the route to congregate in specified cheering areas, typically those tough stretches where runners can benefit by a boost from the crowd.

Marathon runner Kevin Baugh runs strong.
Marathon runner Kevin Baugh runs strong.
They’re also trying to take the brand nationwide by introducing the Gold Jacket 5K series this year, with stops in NFL team cities leading to a national championship finals race in Canton in late summer.

Chaney expects 6,500 runners for this spring’s Sunday marathon events and another 1,500 for Saturday’s 5K, with Canton being one of eight qualifying stops on the 2015 Gold Jacket trek. The name pays homage to jackets presented to each year’s class of enshrinees.

“We want to become a top-10 boutique marathon,” Chaney explained, meaning the event will never rival the prestige of those found in Boston or Chicago, for example. “The marathon will never put us on the map as industry-leading … but the 5K will do that.”

Chaney’s Run To You Racing, which founded the marathon last year, was unsure of what to expect when David Baker came on board as the new president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame a year ago. Turns out, Baker sees the addition of the 5K series as a bonus for the Hall itself.

“The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s mission is to honor the heroes of the game, preserve its history, promote its values and celebrate excellence EVERYWHERE,” Baker said in a press statement. “Like the Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon, this 5K Gold Jacket series aligns with the Hall’s mission and takes the message to fans in every NFL city.”

Joanie Washington, of Sheffield Lake, won the women’s full marathon in 2014.
Joanie Washington, of Sheffield Lake, won the women’s full marathon in 2014.
Besides the Canton 5K series qualifier, similar races will be held in Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Chicago and Buffalo. Male and female winners will win an all-expense paid trip to Canton for the national final race September 13, a weekend that will include other former Hall of Fame Festival-type events. Each stop will feature Hall memorabilia with Hall members on hand as guests.

However, 2016 is the big year.

The 5K series will go to all 32 cities as well as Canton for qualifiers. Again, a national championship will be held in Canton. Prize money will be paid to top-10 finishers among men and women, with a first-place payout likely to be in the range of $2,500. In addition, Chaney hopes to attract some of the nation’s top 5,000-meters runners—who miss out on qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team—to the national finals race.

“The series, in terms of sheer numbers, will be larger than the Boston Marathon or Chicago Marathon,” he said.

From day one, Chaney has billed the Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon as a race put on by runners, for runners. The 5K series, he said, is a great fit for anyone who wants to run, walk or jog.

A member of the board of directors for Running USA, Chaney held the 800-meters record at Copley High for 22 years. He has since become an accomplished marathoner and Clif Bar Pace Team member, pacing for many marathons. The rest of his executive team is David Beck, Andrew Rowles and Matt Mapley, who handle an assortment of key roles, from community relations to finance.

Runner from England returning to Canton this year
The 26.2 miles that Dipak Gohil will run in Canton this spring is nothing compared to his journey to get here.

The 48-year-old pharmaceutical marketing and sales representative will make the trip from his home in England, where he lives about 100 miles north of London.

Canton is a perfect fit for Gohil, an avid fan of American NFL football—especially the San Francisco 49ers.

He ran in last year’s inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon and will return for this year’s April 26 race.

Gohil was in town for six days last year. He said he visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame several times, including two daylong trips. He’s looking forward to checking out the Hall again.

“The whole trip was great … the people were wonderful, very kind and generous,” he said.

Only a few short years ago, Gohil weighed more than 300 pounds. He went on a diet and began to get in shape. He ran a marathon. While searching the Internet for another marathon, he stumbled upon Canton.

“Football, the Hall, it resonated with me,” he explained.

Gohil had traveled to the States many times before, but never to Canton until last year. He said he met several people with whom he has become close friends. Together, they’ve made arrangements for them to visit him later this summer. And the marathon won’t be his last trip to Canton.

“It will be more like a couple times a year now,” he said.

Team of Zeke and Andre will tackle 26.2-mile trek
The improbable team of Zeke and Andre could bring a throng of well-wishers to Canton this spring.

Jason “Zeke” Petrie will push wheelchair-bound Andre “Dre” Travis the entire 26.2 miles that is the Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon on April 26. The Barberton duo has developed a cult following after competing in marathons in Akron (twice), Cleveland and Columbus.

“The looks we get sometimes … I’m this white guy with a whole lot of tattoos, and he’s a black guy in a wheelchair,” Petrie said.

Petrie made headlines almost three years ago when he was held for 50 days in a Haitian prison in Port-au-Prince. He had been detained during a pro-military rally there, accused, he said, of financing and organizing a conspiracy to overthrow the Haitian government.

Upon his return to Ohio, Petrie took a job as a driver for people with disabilities. Enter Travis, who has cerebral palsy. Petrie chauffeured him for a bit. The two hit it off. They began running and haven’t stopped, reminiscent of Team Hoyt, a father-son partnership that has run in 32 Boston Marathons.

“Dre said it makes him feel like he’s flying when we run … that he’s closer to God,” Petrie said. “That choked me up. I mean I was in bad shape myself before all this … had just got divorced. Since this started, we’ve done a lot of public speaking events together.”

Petrie said he learned of the marathon in Canton through social media. It was close. Travis, he said, is a big football fan who loves the Browns. A visit to the Hall of Fame is a sure bet for them.